Cultured meat grown in a lab has the potential to be much more environmentally friendly than current practices in the agriculture industry, but a new study has revealed a looming problem: a lot of people really don't like the idea of eating it.
We're talking here about meat produced in the laboratory from real animal muscle cells. Across experiments with a total of 1,587 volunteers, around 35 percent of meat-eaters and 55 percent of vegetarians said that they felt too disgusted by cultured meat to even take a taste.
The "perceived unnaturalness" of the cultured meat was a big factor in its rejection, the study reports, and it's clear that work needs to be done in changing attitudes towards this lab-grown food if it's going to be widely adopted by the masses.
"As a novel food that humans have never encountered before, cultured meat may evoke hesitation for seeming so unnatural and unfamiliar – and potentially so disgusting," the researchers write in their paper.
Having recruited groups of meat eaters and vegetarians, the researchers ran a series of tests asking for reactions to the thought of eating cultured meat, based on a brief description of it and how it's made.
The study participants were also quizzed about what, if anything, put them off the food. They were asked to grade responses to statements such as "cultured meat seems artificial" and "I would feel like I am eating something from an animal" to get at the underlying reasons behind any reactions of disgust.
Work needs to be done to combat the idea that cultured meat is unnatural, the researchers say. This was a common response from all the volunteers, although reactions also differed between those that currently eat meat and those that don't.
The study highlights the problem in making the lab-grown food appealing to meat eaters and non-meat eaters alike. The first group doesn't find it enough like meat, while the second group finds it too much like meat (although obviously vegetarians are already abstaining from eating meat and the environmental cost of producing it).
There are indications that attitudes towards cultured meat could be changed by the way it's described and advertised. For example, framing it as resembling animal flesh reduced disgust in meat eaters – although this also increased disgust in vegetarians.
"Divergent cognitive appraisals of cultured meat, we propose, may induce in vegetarians and meat-eaters the same affective disgust response," write the researchers.
"Identifying the bases of this disgust response may be critical to understanding why people reject cultured meat: a product poised to create a more humane, healthy, and sustainable future."
Swap out current farming methods for cultured meat processes, and the amount of water used and the volume of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere goes down significantly. It would also reduce the risk of infectious disease outbreaks in animals.
Consumer reaction to cultured meat has been investigated before, with product pricing and distrust of food scientists also considered, alongside a feeling of disgust at actually eating meat that's been produced in a laboratory setting.
Cultured meat isn't yet publicly available in many places, though it looks likely to be in the near future. If the results of this particular piece of research are anything to go by, then it's going to be a while before most of us are comfortable eating it.
"Understanding the basic appraisals eliciting this disgust response is critical for promoting sustainable consumption," the researchers explain. "Shifting from conventionally produced meat to cultured meat offers immense environmental, health, and ethical benefits."
The research has been published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.